In the summer of 2012, Vladimir Putin returned as Russia’s president, after four years of playacting as a pliant prime minister. I spent time in St Petersburg trying to sift through his murky myth. Everyone who knew him, everyone who had worked with him – I wanted to track them down. My calls usually rang unanswered. When old voices picked up they abruptly hung up on hearing my requests.
It was like chasing a ghost. The old, hard-bitten police chief who worked with him in St Petersburg in the 1990s was still a little stunned by Putin’s rise. “I thought he was just an insignificant official at the time.” The city’s town-hall orator, another former colleague of Putin’s, also remained baffled. “When he became president I threw open my photo album to see us together. But he wasn’t in a single one. He’d slipped out of every frame. I sometimes wonder if he even has a reflection in the mirror.”
There was only one person I met who could still see something of Putin the man, and not the state. She was his old schoolteacher Vera Gurevich. She was nervous, but agreed to meet. We sat and talked on a park bench where nobody could hear us, far from the splendid palaces, all piecrust architecture and full of groups of elderly German tourists.
“I am so proud of him,” Gurevich gushed, her eyes milky with cataracts. “I am proud of him like a son.” The little boy she remembers was born in 1952 and grew up in a hungry, crumbling, postwar Leningrad: the “hero-city” of the Nazi blockade, where almost every adult had lived through the siege. Two elder brothers died from hunger and disease and his father limped from his wounds at the front.
The Putins were the opposite of a family of dissidents: they were Soviet conformists. His grandfather was a chef who served Stalin, Lenin and the tsar’s mad monk Rasputin. It was a job held by informants.
“His mother was not a very literate person,” Gurevich told me. “She was from the village. Putin’s mother didn’t want a child. The others had died. He was born when she was 42 years old.” Gurevich was a second mother to him, taking him with her to Crimea for long summer holidays. Without such a teacher, pushing him to read and to learn German, it seems unlikely that her little “Putka” would ever have made it into the KGB, let alone beyond.
Putin grew up in typical Soviet conditions: absolute poverty compared to the life of any western politician. His parents were little people – a factory foreman and a janitor – and distant. They ignored his homework. One of Putka’s childhood activities was chasing rats. “They gave me a lasting lesson in the meaning of the word ‘cornered’,” he said as he ran for president in 2000. “I used to chase them around with sticks. I spotted a huge rat and pursued it down the hall until I drove it into a corner. It had nowhere to run. Suddenly it lashed around and threw itself at me. I was surprised and frightened. Now the rat was chasing me.”
In the sticky heat, I asked Gurevich about the essential element of Putin’s personality. What was it that made him? She cackled, squinted and grew suspicious. But what she said stuck in my head. “If people hurt him . . . he reacted immediately, like a cat . . . he would fight like a cat – suddenly – with his arms and legs and teeth.”
I remembered Vera as I read The New Tsar: the Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin, by the New York Times journalist Steven Lee Myers. This elegant book is the most concise and up-to-date chronicle of Putin’s career. If it were a novel, I would describe the plot as one of dimly sensed, then sharply building horror, punctuated by long pauses of wishful thinking. Unfortunately, its story of bitter and cynical middle-aged spies, flamboyant thieves and crushed youth is Russia’s recent history.
The book shows how the country was transformed from a chaotic and corrupt pseudo-democracy with a free press into a brittle, autocratic, neo-imperialist regime. Much of the drama comes from the mostly arrogant and occasionally innocent challengers to the Russian president’s growing power. Time and time again, they have found their political careers destroyed, by whatever means necessary, leaving them gawping in a state of shock.
Every time, Putin fights like a cat. His own generation misreads him for a weakling; younger foes for a man who will ultimately abide by some vague sense of decency and distaste for Soviet repression. On finishing The New Tsar you are nagged by one question: why did many powerful Russians, from spy chiefs to oligarchs, misjudge him?
Vladimir Putin was the president from nowhere. Myers deftly charts the unlikely luck of a KGB colonel, briefly stationed in Dresden, turned deputy mayor of St Petersburg, who became a Kremlin aide and ended up an intelligence chief, only to be anointed the successor to Boris Yeltsin as much as by mad chance and through the oligarchs’ hapless intrigue as anything else. It was a great surprise, not least to his family. When his then wife, Lyudmila, heard the news she burst into tears. “I knew I had lost my husband,” she said. In his first television interview as prime minister, in 1999, Putin looked like he was about to be sick.
War turned Mr Nobody From St Petersburg into a hero. At first, his poll ratings were terrible. In September 1999, less than 5 per cent of Russians said they were planning to vote for him to become president. A year later, four mysterious bombings ripped through Moscow and other Russian cities, killing more than 300 people and wounding 1,000. These became known as the apartment bombings – Russia’s equivalent of the 11 September 2001 attacks.
The nation rallied round Putin, triggering a war wave that he used to grab full hold of the reins of power. Without it there would have been no President Putin, let alone the Putin era. His poll ratings soared to 79 per cent by the end of 2000. When he promised to recapture Chechnya, Russian TV hosts and anchors were whipped into a state of hysteria, calling for Moscow to use “napalm” and for “carpet bombing” of Grozny. The frenzy for war made Putin. Back in St Petersburg, his dying father could not believe it. “My son is like a tsar!” he said.
But were the apartment bombings really the work of Chechen terrorists? A little over ten years later I met one of the few men now left alive who seriously investigated the attacks. Two members of a short-lived independent commission investigating the bombings were murdered. The commission’s lawyer was even jailed. Mikhail Trepashkin, that lawyer, was the man I met. He introduced himself also as a former FSB colonel and stood, limply, weak from spending time in jail on trumped-up charges, designed to stop his inquiries. “They’ll do it again to stay in power,” Trepashkin said, waving towards the Kremlin. There is a long train of occurrences to suggest the involvement of Russian intelligence in the bombings. Security agents were caught by vigilantes, stuffing bombs in basements. Deputies and generals warned that the security services were planning fake terrorists attacks to cement power. And in the months and years to come, most of the journalists, politicians or investigators searching for truth wound up dead or in prison.
We still don’t know what happened. Some see a cover-up of a horrific plot, others a cover-up of a humiliating cock-up. Both sides agree that the regime whipped up the terror-hysteria for all it was worth. To fantastic result.
Putin’s reign as president officially began on New Year’s Eve 1999. Trembling and blubbing, Boris Yeltsin asked Russia to forgive him. Then, at midnight, Putin spoke. Fifteen years later, he is still speaking at midnight to the Russian people.
Reading The New Tsar, one is struck by how few powerful Russians have ever appreciated over this time that it was becoming one-man rule. Looking back, it seems laughable there could have been a credible sense in Putin’s first decade as president that he was getting ready to enjoy a glitzy retirement. The four years in which he played prime minister, to his servant Dmitry Medvedev’s puppet presidency, should not have fooled anyone, but most observers fell for the charade. “I am a specialist in human relations,” is what Putin used to tell friends when he was in the KGB.
Nobody I tracked down, that summer in St Petersburg in 2012, anticipated his reign. Even his old business partners were stunned to see him in glory on national TV. Many years later, Sergey Kolesnikov would find himself not only handling secret offshore accounts for Putin’s benefit, but also charged with overseeing work on a baroque palace for him on the Black Sea. But in the early 1990s he never could have imagined such a thing. “He was an absolutely normal man,” Kolesnikov said. “His voice was normal . . . not tough, not high. He had a normal personality . . . normal intelligence, not especially high intelligence. You could go out the door and find thousands and thousands of people in Russia, all of them just like Putin . . . I was surprised when Putin became president. Of course I was surprised: everyone was surprised.”
But is this now the same Putin? The New Tsar chronicles how the regime has evolved, and with it the man. There is a pattern. Every time a challenger rises, Putin, now 63, not only destroys him, but grabs his source of power. His first tussle was with Boris Berezovsky, the manic, scheming oligarch who brought him to Yeltsin’s attention. Berezovsky was trying to push him around with his popular, formerly state-owned TV station Channel One in 2000. The last time he ever saw Putin, his former protégé smiled at him. “I want to control Channel One. I will manage it.” And then he left the room. Berezovsky told me it left him in a state of panic, exclaiming as Putin left the room: “What have we done? We have let the black colonels in.” Soon, he was exiled, and his channel under Kremlin control.
The move towards autocracy was gradual. “This change started after the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky,” Kolesnikov told me. The young oligarch made the same mistake as Berezovsky. After Khodorkovsky challenged Putin politically using Yukos, his energy empire, to fund anti-Kremlin political parties, he was jailed. He was so stunned that he refused to speak or eat for his first week in jail. Putin nationalised Khodorkovsky’s oilfields. “After that,” said Kolesnikov, “the words used to address Putin
started to change. At first it was ‘boss’ but then more and more would call him ‘tsar’. It began as a joke. But then it became serious.”
Activists also misread Putin. His first decade was buoyed by high oil prices and the rise of the middle class. This eventually turned against the Kremlin, as ever more internet-savvy, worldly and consumerist Russians began to push for less corruption and more open politics. In December 2011, Moscow filled with demonstrators calling for fair elections. Some people took bets that the regime would be out in a year.
But once again, Putin fought just like a cat. Protest leaders were jailed, dragged through Kafka-esque trials or, like the opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, mysteriously shot. Putin filled an increasingly censored internet with trolls, and sent thugs and factory workers to march through the streets. Recently I asked one opposition leader, now in exile, if he had ever thought it would come to this. “No,” he said. “I did not think it could.”
What makes Putin so ruthless? This is one of my favourite questions to ask the Russian dissidents, or Kremlin aides, or former power-brokers I have the chance to meet. Every time I hear an answer, I am struck by the unknowable aura that he retains – or maybe commands. Putin is still a grey blur. They know little about him. Mostly, I find two answers, or rather guesses. The pessimist believes Putin’s fits and starts of repression to be systematic, believing that he wants to restore as much as he can of Soviet power. The optimist sees the authoritarian lurches that have transformed Russia as chaotic – unscripted lashing-out when he feels cornered.
Among the optimists, the one closest to Putin whom I met was Mikhail Kasyanov, his first prime minister, who remembered a boss without a plan. “Putin’s authoritarianism was about eliminating risks to power,” he said. “Free TV became a risk: it was eliminated. When parliament became a risk, it was eliminated. This is all because Putin was frightened of genuine competition. It moved step by step – as each risk appeared he reacted forcefully to it. Putin was frightened of being exposed.”
After Ukraine, we can have no illusions about how far he will go to retain power. But are Putin’s wars, which now extend from Donbas to Damascus, the work of a man trying to re-create the Chechen war wave that first consolidated his power? Is he frightened that without this, mass protests might return to Moscow? Russian TV broadcasts have become relentless propaganda: not only is Russia fighting fascist legions of America in Ukraine, it is in a holy crusade against Islamic State, as even its weather forecasters point out good times for bombing Syria. Just like at the start of the Chechen war, the Kremlin is inciting a war wave to raise the president’s popularity.
Is there a Putin plan, or is it all reactive? Only time will tell. For now, the “theory of Putin” that most draws me is that of the KGB. His superiors always thought he was flawed. Personnel training for Soviet foreign intelligence was onerous, pursued with a rigour and exactitude second only to that given to the country’s cosmonauts. Agents were subjected to months of psychological tests, pulse measurements, head scans, role-plays and “western” life simulations. But mostly the KGB just wanted to catalogue agents’ weaknesses and flaws.
Putin acknowledges that the KGB evaluated him as a man with stunted emotions. His instructors concluded he was at risk, not of succumbing to the temptations of women or drink, but because of his pervasive “lowered sense of danger”. He was also classified as a man unhelpfully unsocial. To this day, he still only grudgingly half admits the agency’s character assessment. “I don’t think that I had a lowered sense of danger, but the psychologists came to this conclusion having followed my behaviour for a long time,” he told journalists back in 2000. This, I fear, is what makes him so ruthless.
Ben Judah is the author of “Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell In and Out Love With Vladimir Putin” (Yale University Press)
“The New Tsar: the Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin” by Steven Lee Myers is published by Simon & Schuster
This article appears in the 07 Oct 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis